Most of us will never see a dormouse, but are familiar with beautiful images of them curled up asleep when in hibernation. I found I knew very little about them, so turned to the Internet to find out a little more. …
‘Dormice are well known for their habit of sleeping for much of the time. Their popular English name is thought to derive from the French word ‘dormir’ meaning ‘to sleep’. Dormice are known to hibernate for as much as seven months of the year. At the onset of colder weather in October, the animals will select a suitable site close to the ground to build a nest. They then curl up and go to sleep until April. During hibernation, dormice slow down their bodily functions and enter a state of extreme torpor. In this state they feel cold to the touch and take some time to rouse themselves when handled. However, they do wake up periodically for a few hours at a time. They survive extended periods without food by living off stored reserves of fat laid down in the fruitful autumn months.
Dormice feed high up in the trees on a variety of food. They eat flowers and pollen during the spring, fruit in summer and nuts, particularly hazel nuts, in autumn. It is thought that insects are taken too. This variety of food must be available within a small area, a requirement which limits the suitability of some sites for dormice.
Dormice become sexually mature at one year old and their breeding season is from May to September. They produce between two and seven young and can raise two litters a year. The young dormice stay with their mother until they are about ten weeks old. As well as their grass-woven nests, dormice are known to use tree cavities and boxes for rearing young. They hibernate in nests built just below ground.'(Text from http://www.Arkive.org)
Dormice occur mainly in southern counties, especially in Devon, Somerset, Sussex and Kent. There are few recorded localities north of the Midlands, so when Rob told me he was going to a site in Staffordshire where they had been recorded, I leapt at the chance to accompany him. In response to a number of recordings of this wonderful species, a phenomenal 80 dormouse boxes were put up (many made by Rob) and these are monitored regularly. In order to monitor dormouse boxes, you have to be licensed and have had all the relevant training. Rob explained that the woodland we were in was good for dormice as they need to be able to travel from one tree to another in the canopy, so trees need to be close together. They also love Hazel and there were lots in this wood. Honeysuckle is a favourite and it was tangled through the woodland floor.
To monitor 80 boxes spread out throughout the woodland was a major task and I was only able to stay for the morning, monitoring a mere 25 boxes or so. Rob continued to early evening to make sure all the boxes had been checked! The boxes look very much like a standard nest box, except the entrance hole is at the back, up against the trunk of the tree, spaced from the bark by 2 batons of wood. All the boxes were numbered and we had to find all the boxes, then carefully look inside and record what we found…
We worked our way through the woods and it soon became apparent that, despite being designed for dormice, these boxes were commonly used by tits as well, even though the entrance hole was tucked around the back! Upon opening the box carefully, I took a quick photo, before putting the lid back on safely. We could then review the photo to see how many chicks there were inside the boxes and record this. Just within the boxes I helped monitor, we found lots of blue tit nests, some with very large clutches that seemed to be doing well….
Another species that commonly uses the boxes is the wood mouse and we found a few of those too!
The dormouse nest is very distinctive as it is of a woven construction… the wood mice tend to just pile in the leaves and moss. The dormouse takes grass and honeysuckle and weaves it onto a beautiful domed nest…..
We also discovered a lovely wren nest, in the open and listened to a cuckoo calling whilst we hunted through the undergrowth for boxes!
As I headed back to the car, Rob showed me an area that had been cleared as a butterfly glade. This had involved cutting back all the undergrowth and opening up the area so other plants could grow and this would create a different type of habitat to the woodland area. Two ponies were being used to graze the area and keep the vegetation down. Using cattle, sheep or ponies as a conservation technique is often used on reserves and is considerable less time-consuming than trying to constantly cut back and manage vegetation.
Rob contacted me at the end of the day to tell me what he had found. Sadly, no evidence of dormice in any of the 80 boxes, but these boxes were being very well used by the other wildlife in the woodland! 19 blue tit nests were recorded, and over 100 chicks! Two nests had more than 10 chicks in them.There were 3 Great tit nests. 2 nest were found with dead chicks inside… abandoned at some point, possibly due to the adult being predated. 2 nests were found with abandoned eggs. 5 nests found that had been used and the chicks had fledged. Wood mice had occupied 15 of the nest boxes and there was a wasp nest in one!
It was a fascinating morning, despite not finding a dormouse… thank you to Rob and all the other people who have worked so hard to provide these boxes and monitor them on a regular basis.